Praxeology & Computational Theory of Mind

January 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Mises and Praxeology 

The work of the late Ludwig von Mises almost entirely focused on analyzing economics through a praxeological lens. To put it simply, the science of Praxeology is based on the common sense assumption that humans “act”. That is to say that human beings act consciously in order to obtain a desired condition which they value as superior to their current state of affairs. If a man were perfectly content he would refrain from any action. Put simply, purposeful action is what keeps men from merely living in a vegetative state. Humans eat and drink in order to stay alive. We build homes to provide comfort for our families. We obtain jobs to satisfy all of these desires(thirst, comfort, etc). Our lives are a series of purposeful actions meant to strive toward conditions that we as individuals value as desirable.

When Mises’ first expounded on these ideas he was scoffed at and (more typically) ignored. Indeed, when Mises’ was at his most prolific the field of psychology was awash in the (now defunct) ideas of B.F. Skinner and the behaviorists. Research into the cognitive sciences (from a strictly scientific perspective) was in its infancy. Thus, any philosophy which approached the social sciences from the perspective that individuals make purposeful decisions and don’t simply react to the external stimuli of their environment would have trouble gaining any traction in academia. And that’s precisely what happened to Mises’ work on Praxeology.

Changing Tides & A New Era

However, Over the past half century or so things have changed quite a bit. The field of psychology has essentially purged behaviorist ideas from its ranks and scientific research into the field of cognitive science has changed the way we look at the human mind.

And although the social sciences as a whole have been reluctant to embrace the new findings of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science, it’s simply a matter of time before the day of reckoning. The mounting evidence in these new fields denies a lot of the preciously held dogmas of the social sciences. And when that time comes, it will be important to analyze many ideas which might have been swept under the rug by previous generations. Mises’ work on Praxeology will undoubtedly be one of these ideas.

Computational Theory of Mind

The cognitive revolution which occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century did what generations of philosophers couldn’t. It bridged the gap between physical events and ideas/intentions. Philosophers couldn’t understand how something as abstract as “wanting a sandwich” could incite matter to move in space and make a sandwich. Advances in cognitive science explained exactly how.

The computational theory of mind is best (and most succinctly) explained by Steven Pinker:

[Cognitive science says that] “…mental life can be explained in terms of information, computation, and feedback. Beliefs and memories are collections of information — like facts in a database…thinking and planning are systematic transformations of these patterns, like the operations of a computer program.”

Perhaps most interestingly is how closely the ideas espoused by cognitive science mirror how Mises describes human action in regards to Praxeology(in particular compare the two boldfaced sentences). Pinker goes on:

Wanting and trying are feedback loops, like the principle behind a thermostat: they receive information about the discrepancy between a goal and the current state of the world, and then they execute operations that tend to reduce the difference.

Compare this to Mises’ description of human action in Theory and History:

The significance of value judgments consists precisely in the fact that they are the springs of human action. Guided by his valuations, man is intent upon substituting conditions that please him better for conditions which he deems less satisfactory. He employs means in order to attain ends sought.

Clearly the findings of cognitive science provide ample support for Mises’ work on human action and Praxeology. What’s particularly impressive (perhaps a bit shocking) is that Mises had the forethought and wherewithal (stubbornness?) to press on and publish such ideas despite the fact that he knew the majority of his contemporaries would be downright hostile to them.

This connection is huge, and I’d be very interesting to see a professional academic do a better job of bridging the gap between cognitive science and Praxeology. These ideas could change the focus of the social sciences in a drastic fashion ( if indeed they held up to scrutiny).


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